“When I met Nirmala, she was weeping inconsolably. One of her dogs had just died, she didn’t know why. He had not been eating for a couple of days, and she had taken him to the doctor. After returning she had left the dog lying down… and a few minutes later found that he had passed away. “I left him sleeping near the temple,” she sobs. “And now he has gone.”
Nirmala, 35, lives with her husband Kishor Shetty in a small hut next to the pipeline adjoining the Nashik highway in Thane, behind the Mahalakshmi temple near Saket. Many people know her as the Pipeline Lady. Many call her crazy. But Nirmala is only crazy about animals. Despite having next to nothing, she devotes her life to looking after stray dogs and cats. In their little home, the couple live with 12 dogs and four cats. They have no children, but Nirmala says this is not a factor in her love for the animals. “Even if I had human children I would still care for these bachchas,” she says.
Kishor runs a paan-patti shop nearby, and supports Nirmala both financially and emotionally. “He is a good man,” she says. “When I married him people didn’t think he would stay with me, but we have been married for 20 years now.” Nirmala and Kishor are from different communities. They fell in love and had a court marriage. He has not taken her to his gaon in Karnataka, as he says they will probably not be accepted there. “He tells me, what is there in the gaon? I am there for you, no?” says Nirmala.
The Shettys have been living in this area for a year. Before that, they were in Kharegaon where Kishor sold soap and Nirmala had a vegetable stall. But with rents rising, they had to leave. She knew people in this area, and decided to build a small hut. “I had savings from selling my house in Wagle Estate earlier,” says Nirmala. Much of that money has gone in caring for the dogs. Besides those that live with her, she also takes food for stray dogs in other surrounding areas. She estimates that she gives cooked food and biscuits to a total of 60 dogs. A few people who know about her give her commercial dog and cat food and money now and then. For medical care, she takes the animals to veterinarian Dr. Hemant Thange of the Thane-based NGO PAL (Pet Owners and Animal Lovers). He does not charge her, but she spends on medicine that she has to buy outside. ”My savings are becoming less and less, but I don’t care, I will spend for the animals,” she declares. For feeding the dogs, Nirmala buys rice from a ration shop, and chicken scraps (such as feet) from various shops. She buys chicken, sometimes mutton and fish, thrice a week, spending about Rs 200 every time. “The ration shop owner offered to give me the rice free, but I don’t like to do that, so I give him Rs 10 per kg,” she says.
She needs about 50 kg of rice every month, and the shop owner has it delivered for her. Some people are kind, after all. But there are others who dislike her devotion to the animals, and complain that the dogs create nuisance. Animals lovers from the nearby Saket complex, however, point out that dogs who are fed and cared for actually do not create trouble, as they will not go foraging and fighting for food. And in fact, the dogs who live with the Shettys look as sleek and well-cared-for as any pet dogs. Nirmala herself looks frail, as if she has not eaten for three days, but she says that is just her build.
As we speak, sitting on a bench outside the Mahalakshmi temple, dogs come up to her, asking to be petted. One of them settles down on the bench next to her for a nap. ”This is Lalla,” she says. All the dogs and cats have names. The one who just died was Bhagirath, nicknamed Bhaggi. She cries again at the mention of his name. ”I can’t help it, I love them and it hurts when something happens to them,” says Nirmala.
Her love for animals started when she helped an injured puppy in Kharegaon. One by one animals came to her door, knowing they would find food and kindness. And when people complained, she took them indoors. ”That is how it started. I brought my dogs with me when we shifted from Kharegaon,” she says.”I don’t know why I love them. There is some connection between us from a previous life, I’m sure.”
The happy faces of her four-legged family makes one think that it is indeed a connection which will last beyond this lifetime.”